Seattle marketing manager Kelley Wentworth, originally from Ephrata, tells us why she originally tried out for "Survivor" and what she might do with the $1 million prize if she wins it on her third time out.
Kelley Wentworth is a rare breed.
Reality television is a bizarre ecosystem — its stars, ostensibly “real” people, occupy a hyper-real zone where ordinary citizens become quasi-famous for being themselves in artificial situations, and their conflicts, dramas and even personalities are often difficult to believe. But “Survivor” alum Wentworth, who’s back for a third try at the top prize on the CBS reality show (the season starts Wednesday, Feb. 20) and hails from rural Ephrata in Grant County, three hours from Seattle, has a fresh-faced, scrappy small-town-girl persona that’s more Katniss Everdeen than Kim Kardashian.
“My grandfather started a farm from nothing many years ago, with my grandmother, and my dad and my uncle are still out there,” says Wentworth. “When I was growing up they were still in the farming industry, they did alfalfa and hay. The town itself is very small, it has just a few stoplights, family-owned businesses. Our farm was 10 miles outside of town, so I was even more isolated.”
Of course, long-running “Hunger Games”-like endurance challenge “Survivor” is as much a game show as it is a reality show, mixing schadenfreude with escapism, pitting ordinary people against each other in a sadistic battle of personalities to decide which of them will win the top prize of $1 million and the title of Sole Survivor. And it draws its cast from a rarefied segment of the population that’s comfortable roughing it in bathing suits and no makeup on international television.
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As a kid, Wentworth honed her now-fierce competitive edge on soccer and her cousins, but she never visualized herself in front of a camera.
“When I grew up I was so shy,” she said. “I would always have my head in a book, I loved animals, I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. … It’s not really until maybe my senior year of high school when I became this outgoing, vibrant type person. I don’t know what changed … I never wanted to be on TV, never wanted to be an actress, I was horrible at public speaking.”
Wentworth, who studied marketing at Bellevue College, made her first foray onto the small screen on “Survivor’s” 29th season, “San Juan Del Sur — Blood vs. Water,” and though she watched the show as a teenager, she never actually made any attempt to be on it.
“My father and I applied for ‘The Amazing Race’ because we wanted to be a pair and adventure the world and challenge ourselves in that way,” said Wentworth. “We didn’t get too far in the process, but we did receive a call from ‘Survivor’ five years later.” Apparently the production company kept their file — proof that no doesn’t always ultimately mean no, when it comes to jobs and dreams.
“I had thought, OK, it didn’t work out with ‘Amazing Race.’ I wasn’t going to be one of those people that kept applying,” says Wentworth. “We had never even talked about going on ‘Survivor’ … it was totally shocking and out of the blue and totally exciting at the same time. The Wentworth file was just waiting.”
Wentworth, unlike some reality stars (Snooki, looking at you), has a refreshingly 3D genuineness about her. When not “Surviving,” she lives in Lower Queen Anne, where she has a regular Seattle life, with a husband who works at Amazon, her dogs, her intramural soccer and her day job as a marketing manager — not the obvious pedigree of someone who, roughly once a year these days, steps out of the regular world to navigate treacherous cast members and jungle perils for the enjoyment of the teeming masses.
But in a game that, as Wentworth describes it, is now more about social interactions than, say, effective rat hunting, her success on the show (OK, she hasn’t won so far, but she keeps getting asked back) might be chalked up to her “underdog” label and her easy likability versus the cutthroat vibe of some of her past cast members.
“I’m not Joe Anglim, nobody’s going to be so disappointed that I didn’t win this or that challenge,” says Wentworth. “It’s more like: ‘What face is she going to make? What kind of fun confessionals is she going to have?’ ”
And while for some, the harsh glare of millions of judgmental eyes can be damaging, Wentworth seems to float through her interaction with showbiz with distinctly Pacific Northwestern nonchalance, even when she does occasionally get recognized. “I’m always happy to talk ‘Survivor,’ ” she says. “A lot of people want to be on the show, a lot of people want to talk about the show. I’ve met with fans before and said ‘hey, I’ll come grab coffee with you.’ ”
In her first outing on “Survivor,” playing alongside her father, Dale Wentworth, Kelley went out early in the game. Her second time around, she played alone and made it further, but didn’t ultimately win. Now back for a third time on what has been described as “Survivor’s” most punishing season, themed “Edge of Extinction,” Wentworth herself isn’t even sure how many more times she’ll try to climb that mountain if she doesn’t reach the summit this season.
“I take it day by day,” she said. “I actually may be a crazy person. I would never say I would do this 50 times, but I have no idea. I have no idea where I’ll be at in my life, what is my husband doing, where are we living, any family situation. It’s just one season at a time.”
Wentworth has no clear plan for her post-“Survivor” evolution either, although she is interested in exploring the possibility of a future in fitness; as should be obvious, her rock-hard abs don’t flatten themselves. But Wentworth, very much the Seattleite, has a pretty good idea what she’d do with $1 million in the event that she actually wins the game.
“With the money, I’d buy a house,” laughs Wentworth. “In this real-estate market? I’m just trying to get a nice little down payment on a cute little house in Green Lake. What’s a girl gotta do, come on!”
“Survivor: Edge of Extinction” debuts 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, on KIRO/CBS.